Red Flags That May Signal a Senior Scam

Red flag #1: The callers want to get you angry, scared and confused so you think irrationally.

Unfortunately, this sort of devious scenario happens all the time. In a report released by a Senate committee in January 2019, older adults lose an estimated $2.9 billion each year to financial scams. The most prevalent scam, out of more than 1,500 complaints to the panel's hotline, involves IRS impersonators who conned people into coughing up tens of millions of dollars.

According to a survey by the Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit devoted to investor education, 17 percent of Americans aged 65 or older—more than 6.8 million seniors—were taken advantage of financially with an inappropriate investment, unreasonably high fees for financial services, or outright fraud.

Older people are more vulnerable for several reasons. First, they are more likely to have a “nest egg,” own their own homes or have excellent credit—all of which make them very attractive to scammers. Plus, growing up in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, today’s seniors were raised to be more polite and trusting. Con artists exploit this, knowing it’s harder for them to say “no” or just hang up the telephone. Finally, older Americans are less likely to report fraud because they don’t know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or don’t realize they have been scammed.

Schemes to watch for

The grandparent scam preys on seniors’ love and concern for their grandchildren. It works like this: you’re a grandparent, and you get a phone call or e-mail from someone who identifies himself as your grandson. “I’ve been arrested in another country,” he says, “and I need money wired quickly to pay my bail. And please don’t tell my mom or dad, because they’ll only get upset!” Sometimes, instead of the “grandchild” making the phone call, the criminal pretends to be an arresting police officer, lawyer, doctor at a hospital or some pseudo-authority figure. 

Red flag #2: Being pressured to act quickly is one of the tactics fraudsters use to convince their targets to give them money.

Telemarketing fraud is another example of scams that target seniors. Telemarketers call and try to sell you bogus products or services. They draw you in with offers of free prizes and even free vacations, and then they make urgent claims that “You must act now. This offer won’t last,” or “You’ve won a free gift, but you have to claim it now.”

Here’s the catch: they ask for your credit card number to pay for shipping and handling, or other charges related to your “gift.” And that’s when they get you.  Lottery and sweepstakes scams use a similar ploy. They’ll ask you to make some sort of payment to unlock the supposed prize.

Red flag #3: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

What you can do to protect yourself

The good news is that knowledge is power, and there are a few simple things you can do to protect yourself:

  1. Resist pressure to act quickly. Scammers are counting on you to make a fast decision before you’ve had time to think it through.
  2. Hang up. If someone calls claiming to be from Medicare, the IRS, or any other government agency, asking for your Social Security number or bank information to get your new card or new benefits, it’s a scam. If you have questions, call the agency directly.
  3. Register your landline and cell phone with the Do Not Call Registry at or by calling 1-888-382-1222.
  4. If you suspect that you’ve been the victim of one of these scams, report it.

To learn more about different fraud schemes to watch out for, check out AARP’s fraud watch network.

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